I hadn’t heard of the grandparent scam when my father called me a few years ago to report that my son was in jail, out of state. My dad had been asked to wire bail money and not tell me. Dad was all but unshakable in his belief that he had actually talked to my son. Alarmed, I called my son, who was safe at his home.
What happened to my father is not uncommon. Fortunately, he did not wire any money.
The grandparent scam exploits loving concern and uses a sense of urgency to get a victim to pay, thinking he or she is helping in an emergency. In a twist, now a “courier” will come and pick up your cash, due to COVID-19 concerns.
“There are a million variations,” says Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy for the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America, “but the common thread is that someone you know has an urgent problem and needs your financial help.”
How it works
You’re contacted by someone posing as a panicked family member or friend — or perhaps a lawyer or law enforcement officer calling on their behalf. The claim involves an emergency such as a car accident, arrest or car breakdown. But they need money, quickly. They may beg that the incident be kept secret or claim that there is a gag order.
It used to be that the scammer would start out saying, “Grandma?” or “Grandpa?” hoping to elicit an emotional response. Now criminals may check social media sites for names, locations and other information to make the call seem legitimate.
Whatever the situation, you’ll be asked for money, says Cristina Miranda, a consumer education specialist with the Federal Trade Commission.
That’s when you should break contact, Miranda says. You can say that you need to verify some information or you can simply hang up (or stop responding to email or texts).
If you hand over money, it’s highly unlikely you’ll get it back.
The latest twists
While the scam is old, scammers are skilled at changing messages and tactics.
Some recent examples:
- The FBI in Buffalo, New York, put out an alert earlier this month about a scam that has cost victims “tens of thousands” of dollars. Scammers pretend to be lawyers and send a courier — sometimes a ride-share driver — to pick up bail money.
- A Virginia grandmother, suspicious because her grandson’s voice didn’t sound quite right, was assured it was because he broke his nose in a car accident. He said he’d been arrested for driving under the influence and knew he could trust her. She lost $6,500.
- A 21-year-old assistant manager at a restaurant in Iowa lost $2,000 in April. She thought she was paying bail for a teenage part-time employee who had been charged with a DUI.
What families can do
The best thing to do is to make family members aware, says Grant. It’s much easier to resist an emergency plea for help when family members have asked you to be skeptical.
Other tips, suggested by the Consumer Federation of America and FTC:
- Do not rely on Caller ID — scammers can make a call look as if it’s coming from someone you trust.
- Consider having a family password or asking a caller a question about a family event that you don’t think a criminal could guess or find online.
- Verify the story with a friend or family member, regardless of the hour. Scammers will call in the wee hours of the morning to take advantage of people who are less alert and primed to believe that an unexpected call could be an emergency. You can try to verify the story, such as calling the jail to see if your loved one is actually an inmate.
- Check privacy settings on social media. You typically can restrict who can see your posts and photos.
- Recognize that a request for untraceable payment forms — cash, peer-to-peer payment services, prepaid debit cards, gift cards or wire transfers — is a red flag.
If you’re a victim
If you believe you were contacted by a scammer, report it to the FTC at ReportFraud.ftc.gov or by calling 877-FTC-HELP, Miranda says.
If you’ve agreed to pay someone who’s coming to your home, lock the doors and call the police, she says.
Even if you’ve already paid, it’s still worth trying to recoup your money. It’s a long shot, but you may be able to undo some transactions if you act quickly.